A few weeks ago it was revealed that Ray Kurzweil, pioneer of OCR, speech recognition and AI assistance tools, had joined Google to work on machine learning and language processing projects. My initial reactions were excitement (Google knows the time is ripe for this to happen), cynicism (big name matchups like this rarely work out like they’re supposed to), and last night, during a 12 hour drive from Santa Fe to Austin, curious speculation.
These days it’s rare to truly disconnect. We have the internet floating through the air at home, swirling around our mobile devices as we drive around town. Even in remote places we can read ebooks or listen to our music. When you’re driving through the lonely landscape of New Mexico at 11pm on a Saturday night, with a car full of sleeping people… technology leaves you to your imagination. So here’s my take on where a Google/Kurzweil mashup may take us.
Google’s an amazing company. I’m a die hard Apple product user, but even I realize that Google’s better positioned for the next 50 years. They’ve spent the last 15 years assembling a mindbogglingly good technology base. While Apple has been great at forecasting what people will use and making beautiful, easy to use versions of that, Google has spent the last 15 years figuring out what impact technology’s going to have on peoples lives, and building all the foundational technologies to make it happen. They’ve spent a ton of money and time building technologies that are hard to replicate.
There’s been a lot of talk recently about the five stacks: Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Google and Facebook. They like to wrap you up in their ecosystems, but in reality, Google’s the only one doing the whole thing.
Amazon doesn’t have a real search option, and generally don’t do deep technology development. They’re a lot like Facebook in this regard, they’re agile, but not deep. They can give you a social experience, but they can’t really make your life better, only full of more content (Amazon) or better connected to your friends (Facebook).
Microsoft’s having trouble staying relevant, and while they have a good foothold in the living room, mobile’s abysmal and nobody gets Windows 8. I don’t think they really have a vision for where they want to be as a company in 10 years. They just want people to keep buying Office.
So that leaves us with Apple and Google. Apple has great product design, but they aren’t a deep software technology company. They can design great experiences, but that’s only an advantage for so long. If someone else offers a device that fundamentally does something they can’t match, that someone else (Google) can eventually catch up in design and ease of use. Just look at Google’s Maps app for iOS. Not a skeuomorph to be found. I think Android’s still too complicated for my parents, but it’s obviously getting better.
So we’re left with Google. They have a great technology foundation, gobs of really smart people, and more and more experience making what they build easy to use. And now they’ve hired Ray Kurzweil. Why? Because they want to leverage all this amazing technology they’ve built to be your life AI assistant.
The Predictive Technologies
Lets look at some technologies that Google’s built that will eventually be seen as the ancestors of whatever Kurzweil’s team comes up with. First, we’ll be communicating with it using our voice. Google’s been working on it’s voice technology for a while, including Google Voice Search (call a phone number, say your search, and get the results read to you), Google Voice Voicemail Transcription, Youtube Automatic Video Transcription, and even Google Translate (Speak english, hear Spanish!). Their Google Voice Search is better than Siri, in my experience.
Second, it’ll be with us everywhere (thanks to Android), and it’ll be predictive based on being continually active (thanks to Google’s massive computing capacity, and oddles of data at it’s disposal). An example of this is Google Now, but the Kurzweil version will be even better. Google has been really smart about letting developers build cheap Android devices, but almost all of them still go back to Google for email, calendar, etc. They’ve leveraged the market, but the customers are still theirs.
Third, it’ll reach out and touch other devices. While your phone might be your personal magic wand for the internet, it’s hard to share things on the phone screen, and there are all kinds of things we could do with larger displays. Google’s started doing this with it’s Airplay-like wireless display mirroring. The Google Nexus Q is essentially an admission that you need an easy way to share what you’re listening to when you’re with your friends. The device lets your Android device discover it and use it for output, you’re no longer limited to your android device’s speakers.
Audio is a first step, and mirroring your entire screen is fine, but the future belongs to sharing. You want your friends to be able to come over to your house, and share their lolcat pic or funny video on your TV or other display without needing HDMI cables, or taking over the entire screen. You may want a note taking application to be displayed next to a streaming video, or you may want to play a game where everyone uses their android devices as controllers. For that, you need something smarter. You need something like… a GoogleBoard. (Thank goodness you just bought a hardware company.)
Imagine a display that fades into the environment. It may be small (a 15″ screen next to your door that notices when you walk by and shows you the weather forecast, your expected commute time and reminders) or big (a chalkboard in your kitechen or your refrigerator door). You won’t be watching movies on it, so display fidelity isn’t as important as TVs, but it can use the same production base, so they’ll be cheap. They’ll also be smart, they’ll run android like Google TV, they’ll be internet connected, but they’ll have a lot of features dedicated to sharing their screen space.
They’ll use bluetooth or nfc, they’ll probably have cameras (for google hangout/google talk video conferencing). They’ll be aware of your friends, thanks to Google’s permission system with a group blog bolted on top that’s masquerading as a social network (Google+, if you didn’t catch that). You’ll own the Google Board, and you’ll be able to say ‘everyone in my friends circle can use this’. Your friends will come over to your house, and they’ll be able to magic up a video or graphic or app on their Android device, and fling it up to the GoogleBoard, where it can use the whole thing (if it was empty), or share space with other users already using the Board. Depending on your preferences, the app may utilize the Board’s network connectivity, or the display may just be that, a display that is driven from your Android device like an X-Windows app, with all the network traffic going through your Android device’s backhaul. Maybe Android will be smart enough that it can price-optimize it’s network traffic, using it’s own wifi when it can, your friends wifi when it’s available, or LTE as a fallback.
People love interesting information, and a GoogleBoard would be uniquely suited to provide constant global metric displays. You could have a home dashboard on one, that shows up when nobody’s using it. Your family’s pedometers and scales feed into little personal health meters on the side. ‘Dad, you should probably lay off the pringles, your avatar’s looking a little sad.’ ‘Hey, the fridge is out of milk! (and Target’s having a sale, thank you Google Ads, touch here to add it to your delivery order)’ ‘You play a lot of Kruder and Dorfmeister through your Nexus Q, and Thievery Corporation’s going to be in town, do you want tickets?’
When the GoogleBoard isn’t being used, they may use neat simple technologies to be energy efficient art displays, white boards (I’m imagining capacitive chalk markers that you can see when the Google Board is ‘off’, but are transparent when the google board is on.) They could be coffee tables or kitchen tables. You could play an RTS or card game with the rest of your family over dinner. You could watch a funny video and throw it over to the living room TV, if you really wanted everyone to see it.
Google Bot Avatars
So now that we’re all sharing these displays at once, we need a way to identify who’s who, and now that our android devices (and by extension, google activity) is exposed to other people through a Kurzweil-derived AI, maybe it becomes time to give the thing a name and an avatar. This AI Bot Avatar is your personal concierge for everything Google can offer you, you talk to it, it talks back, it lives in the cloud, but it’s snuggly at home on your phone or Google Glass device, because that only belongs to you. It can pop it’s head up on your home display devices (your Google Boards and Google TV, or your Berg Little Printer), and it can be an invited guest on your friends Boards or Boards and computers at work or school. Since it has a unique name, you can summon it in the car, and all your friends can use your Android-driven car bluetooth speaker system to talk to their devices and ask for their music to be played. Or display things on the Board in the self-driving car’s ceiling.
So lets say my kid’s AI bot avatar is Princess Fluffypants, because she’s a kid and that’s how she rolls. Her AI assistant pulls in stuff from Khan Academy or Make Magazine Youtube videos (because it knows she’s interested in science, but could use some help in math), it keeps her up to date on trends, including what her friends are watching, and gives her the latest news. When she communicates with her AI bot, the bot has a personality (maybe the kid picks ‘Royal’ since Fluffypants is a Princess). Bot grooming and accessorizing becomes a thing, because the Google AI Bot has all of Google’s knowledge behind it, and can probably be programmed and modified like android apps.
My AI bot may be more serious, maybe I’m really into P. G. Wodehouse, so I have a Jeeves, and maybe Stephen Fry’s making some extra scratch by lending his voice to my avatar set. Maybe I even have multiple AI bots, since it’s weird for Jeeves to be talking to me about football or my interest in crumping (or maybe that’s hilarious). But that’s a topic for another blog post.
Application Network Portability
One requirement that this raises is the need for the applications that run your bot, or the applications your bot runs, depending on your perspective, to be network portable. You need to be able to execute code in the Google cloud, things you want to happen regularly or things that benefit from rapid access to large volumes of data, but then you also want software execution on your device, or you want to push a little applet over to a TV or GoogleBoard, since it’s inefficient to render the graphics on your phone and then push them when the display could run the app itself. Or maybe the display reports it’s capabilities and the Phone decides whether to push the applet (the display’s fast enough for what I want) or just use it as a display (the display’s two years old, and isn’t fast enough for this application).
Lots of iOS developers (myself included) gnash their teeth when they think of the insane panoply of Android devices. Testing software at all the resolutions, form factors, and aspect ratios is incredibly painful, but in a network transportable world, maybe that was a smart decision. You never know where your app is going to be displayed, on a landscape 16×9 screen, in a portrait 16×9 area on a larger display, on a square car dashboard, so you design for flexibility.
The Dark Horse
So Google seems pretty well positioned here. Amazon doesn’t seem like a serious player. Facebook will continue to make money, but needs to branch out if they want to control more than just the social conversation. Microsoft is chasing it’s tail, trying to stay relevant. Apple will continue to make beautiful, amazing devices, but they may not have the technological muscle to pull off the next level of magical user experience. Already they have to partner for their most useful features, and that isn’t a good place to be.
There’s one technology company that’s looking like it may be a dark horse entry into this technical re-invention, though, and that’s Wolfram Research. Wolfram|Alpha powers Siri’s more complex question answering, and they’re really gung-ho on their algorithmic approach to the world. With the amount of user generated search data they’re collecting, Wolfram|Alpha could get really good, really fast. If you aren’t reading Stephen Wolfram’s blog, you should. At SXSW last year he mentioned that he wanted to get Mathematica into more areas, to make it more of a foundational piece people could build on. If Wolfram Research was able to turn Wolfram|Alpha and Mathematica into a really good open source development platform for bot and internet search applications, you could get something really powerful.
Wolfram Research is privately held, and I don’t believe that Stephen Wolfram and whoever else owns pieces of it will sell. Any non-Google stack should be slavering to get their hands on it, but being private may keep it out of their reach.
Whatever comes of the Google/Kurzweil partnership, be it really interesting, a spectacular Xanadu-esque failure, or a quiet Google Labs-esque decommissioning, it’s worth paying close attention to. The future doesn’t magically appear, people sit down and build it. There’s nothing stopping any of the technologies I’ve mentioned from appearing in the next few years, and Google’s in a prime position to make it happen. While a lot of it is inspired by science fiction, successful science fiction grabs the imagination like a good early adopter product should. There aren’t many things I’d consider dropping everything to work on, and intelligent network-native bots are one of them. When they appear they’re going to radically remake our daily life experience.